FORT WAYNE — Fort Wayne’s river levees have been spared from a federal tree-removal order, but they’re not out of the woods yet.
President Barack Obama signed into law Tuesday the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, which contains a provision that could prevent the elimination of woody vegetation along 10.2 miles of city levees.
The levee measure, drafted by Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-3rd, eliminates guidance by the Army Corps of Engineers in 2009 for the removal of trees and bushes larger than 2 inches in diameter from earthen flood barriers nationwide. The Army Corps believes levees are weakened by tree roots and burrowing animals attracted by plant cover.
Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry had endorsed Stutzman’s amendment to the water resources bill, which was approved in May by the House and the Senate.
“This has a major impact, not only on Fort Wayne, but on other communities across the country,” city government spokesman John Perlich said in an email. “Our rivers are a key asset as we invest in the community and protect the environment.”
When he introduced the legislation last year, Stutzman said it would save Fort Wayne’s government $25 million in tree-removal costs. The city spent $600,000 in recent years to remove vegetation from and rebuild 1,100 feet of levee along Edgewater Avenue.
Stutzman’s provision requires the Army Corps to consider “regional characteristics, habitat for species of concern, and levee performance” before ordering the removal of vegetation from a specific flood wall. So it’s possible the agency might still want trees and bushes yanked from levees in Fort Wayne and elsewhere.
The Army Corps “will develop implementation guidance for the provisions” of the water resources act, agency spokesman Pete Pierce said.
“I can’t really speculate on what they may say in the end,” he said.
Perlich said, “We’ll continue to work with the Army Corps of Engineers to ensure that our levees remain safe while preserving the riverbanks around them.”
Of 39 Indiana levee systems rated by the Army Corps, seven have been described as “unacceptable,” including the three systems in Fort Wayne and three systems along the Little Calumet River in Lake County.
After June 2010 inspections, the Army Corps reported, among other problems, “Unacceptable vegetation growth is pervasive throughout nearly the entire flood protection system” in Fort Wayne, which includes levees for the St. Marys, St. Joseph and Maumee rivers, Spy Run Creek and Junk Ditch.
The Army Corps said at the time that vegetation threatens the integrity of the levees, provides protected habitat for burrowing animals and hinders levee inspections.
The water resources law will spend $12.3 billion and fund 34 water infrastructure projects, among them the deepening of the Boston Harbor and the Port of Savannah, Ga., and restoration of Florida’s Everglades.